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Tecumshe and Harrison (Courtesy of Grouseland)

Vincennes, Indiana

getaway-chicago logo The Getaway Guys visited Vincennes, Indiana in August 2011 and thought its name was derived from Vincennes, France. It is named for Francois-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes (1700-1736), a French-Canadian explorer who established a fort and trading post near Vincennes on the Wabash River. Bissot wasn’t an aristocrat. Sieur de Vincennes was strictly an honorary and non-hereditary title, which was just as well because he was burned at the stake by Indians when only 36. He must have bummed them out, because generally the French had good relations with Indians, unlike their English counterparts.vincennes1

Because of its place in American history Vincennes, Indiana is noteworthy; playing a pivotal role in who would dominate the Northwest Territory (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin). Today it is somewhat sleepy with much of its history obliterated by “progress." Gradually it is rediscovering its past, but with austerity nuts in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C. its prospects for either State or Federal funds to assist are dim. Just down the road apiece New Harmony, Indiana exists in stark contrast if money is a sole issue. With a determined oil billionaire heiress for a fairy godmother, New Harmony has preserved its historicvincennes4 past exceptionally.

Aside from Bissot, two men dominate Vincennes history, George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) and William Henry Harrison (1773-1841). Clark was a war hero during the American Revolution and Harrison a military officer-politician best remembered for the Battle of Tippecanoe (1811) just prior to the War of 1812. During the Revolution Clark marched his small army across the frozen turf of Southern Illinois and captured Fort Sackville at Vincennes from the British, dealing a blow to British claims in the Northwest Territory. Harrison’s claim to fame is more nuanced. As the Governor of the still largely unsettled Northwest Territory, Harrison irrevocably alienated Tecumseh at a parley in Vincennes and then led a successful preemptive attack on this charismatic Indian at Tippecanoe. The Revolution won for the United States an ill defined territorial claim on the Northwest Territory. Technically it was still up for grabs and a potential flash point between the U.S. and a British Empire still smarting from its defeat in 1783.

vincennes2vincennes3Harrison (the ninth President of the United States) is commemorated by his mansion and headquarters, Grouseland. By contemporary standards it is grand. From a frontier perspective, it was palatial and was home and seat of power for essentially a Viceroy. Once described as President Jefferson’s “hammer,” Harrison’s territorial decisions were in effect the “law.” It was at Grouseland that Harrison had his fateful meeting with Tecumseh which almost resulted in the slaughter of Harrison, his family and the citizens of Vincennes. Cooler heads prevailed. With sumptuous interiors restored by The Daughters of the American Revolution, it is hard to believe such a residence could have existed in the middle of a wilderness. Aside from artifacts related to the Harrisons, Grouseland is a cornucopia of information about Vincennes’s territorial past. A modest fee is charged and the guided tour is fascinating and well presented.

vincennes6vincennes5Due south and within walking distance, is the George Rogers Clark Memorial, St. Francis Xavier Church (right), the Lincoln Memorial Bridge (below, left) and the French House Museum. Reminiscent of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Clark Memorial is on the banks of the Wabash, overlooking an expansive plaza. Administered by the National Park Service, the Memorial was completed and dedicated by President Roosevelt on June 14, 1936. Internally consisting of a spacious rotunda with a bronze sculpture of Clark by Hermon A. MacNeil centrally located and seven large, vertical murals depicting Clark’s epic march and capture of Fort Sackville (1779) by Ezra Winter, this magnificent structure dedicated to a largely forgotten Revolutionary war hero seems a bit over the top, but nevertheless quite stunning. vincennes7Adjacent to the Clark Memorial Plaza is the Lincoln Memorial Bridge with two massive pylons representing Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa in low relief, somewhat ironic because these two Native American leaders fiercely opposed white expansion in general and the dictates of William Henry Harrison in particular. To say they didn’t like one another, puts it mildly! Completed in 1933, these sculptural reliefs reflect a strong WPA art influence.

Close by St. Francis Xavier Church (c1826) is a reminder of Vincennes’s French origins. The oldest house of worship still standing, St. Farncis Xavirer is very large by frontier standards and quite ornate internally. With a somewhat provincial Baroque interior, it reminded Neil and Alan of churches they had seen in France. North of St. Francis and a little beyond Grouseland on 1st Street Street the Guys visited the French House Museum (below, right), which consists of a preserved and restored dwelling from 1809 and an adjacent building housing artifacts related to Vincennes history. This very early house is well built, using timbers and straw infused waddle for insulation. vincennes8Predictably it is small and compact with sleeping quarters on the second floor and the first floor devoted to cooking and eating with a large fireplace providing for meal preparation and heating. Out back, in a less than desirable building for artifact preservation and display is the “museum,” which contains an interesting collection. The French House (right) is owned by the Old Northwest Corporation, but when the Guys visited, a National Park Service guide on “loan” from the Clark Memorial was on duty because nobody else was available. A nice young man studying to be a Park Ranger full time, he knew very little about what he was guarding. So much for budget cuts!

vincennes9Lastly, Neil and Alan visited a group of rescued, early Vincennes structures (left) further north on W. Harrison Street. Admirably these are restored structures saved from a wrecking ball and moved to a central location, a gesture that fails to address their history and importance to Vincennes as an outpost of our western expansion. Today much of Vincennes’s city center is somewhat woe-be-gone and the present economy isn’t helping. vincennes11There are vintage 19th century commercial buildings of interest and residential areas with remaining, once prosperous houses. In such a residential area the Guys stumbled on the overwhelming Knox County Court House, right, a Victorian pile in excellent condition.

Historically Vincennes is compelling. As a destination the Guys suggest a Vincennes-New Harmony combo. Both make an easy long weekend trip. October 2011

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